State Senator David Johnson joins #NeverTrump camp (updated)

“Mark me down as Never Trump,” State Senator David Johnson said today, becoming the most prominent Iowa Republican elected official to renounce the presumptive presidential nominee. The longtime Senate incumbent told the Des Moines Register’s William Petroski he became a no-party voter because of Donald Trump’s “racist remarks and judicial jihad.”

“I will not stand silent if the party of Lincoln and the end of slavery buckles under the racial bias of a bigot,” Johnson said, referring to Trump. His criticism was prompted by Trump’s comments that a judge presiding over a lawsuit involving his business was biased because of his Mexican heritage. […]

“If Mr. Trump is the nominee, he becomes the standard bearer for a party that’s on the verge of breaking apart. He simply cannot unify the GOP. If there is a profound split, I’ll gladly re-join Republicans who are dedicated to equality and justice for all, and let Mr. Trump lead his supporters over the cliff,” Johnson said. […]

“There are consequences to the decision to suspend, for now, my Republican registration. I am fully aware of that,” Johnson said. “As I have for the past 18 years, I will put a high priority on constituent service. Many of the voters who elected me are supporting Mr. Trump. I respect that, but disagree that he is qualified to lead the nation and the free world.”

Johnson represents one of the most heavily Republican state Senate districts, covering five counties in northwest Iowa. Ted Cruz carried two of those counties (Lyon and Osceola) by a relatively wide margin, while Trump carried the other three (Dickinson, Clay, and Palo Alto) by slim margins. Johnson endorsed former Texas Governor Rick Perry for president in early 2015, eventually backing Carly Fiorina last October.

Conservation funding aside, I rarely find myself in agreement with Johnson. But kudos to him for speaking out while Senator Chuck Grassley, Governor Terry Branstad, and others tried to sidestep Trump’s steadfast assertion that a federal judge is biased because “he’s Mexican.”

UPDATE: A reader asked whether Johnson had endorsed Representative Steve King’s re-election, given King’s long history of offensive statements regarding Latinos. Johnson was not on the list of state legislative supporters the King campaign released on May 24.

King himself has not yet endorsed Trump, for reasons unrelated to the presidential candidate’s comments about immigrants.

SECOND UPDATE: Added below excerpts from Johnson’s interview with Ben Jacobs of The Guardian.

Jacobs reported on June 7,

Johnson compared Trump’s run for the Republican nomination to the rise of Hitler and said Trump won “by reducing his campaign to reality TV and large crowds and divisive language and all the trappings of a good show for those who like that kind of approach, and that’s what happened in the 1930s in Germany”.

He added: “I think that’s all I need to say, but certainly the fascists took control of Germany under the same types of strategies.”

Johnson also condemned Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims entering the US. Referencing his own father, who was in the first American unit to liberate a Nazi prison camp, Johnson said: “I was raised without hearing any racial slur, any racial epithet. It’s something that if we’re going to exclude Muslims from traveling to the United States, who’s next? Are we going to come down on Jews? … He’s not fit to be president.”

Johnson also expressed his concern that there was “definitely an innate bigotry” among a large share of Trump voters. “It really hurts for me to say that, but it’s true,” he said.

Jacobs quoted Johnson as expressing the hope that Republican National Convention delegates would “dump Trump” in Cleveland next month. That sounds like a pipe dream to me.

Pat Rynard speculated about another scenario that seems highly unlikely:

In an interview with the Des Moines Register, Johnson wouldn’t even commit to caucusing with the Republicans in the Iowa Senate. That could cause massive problems for Republicans desperate to retake the Senate, split 26-24 for Democrats. They only need to flip one seat in this year’s election to tie it, two to hold it outright. Johnson could use his new position as a bargaining chip and potentially throw Republicans’ entire plans for a majority into chaos should they be successful in November.

I will bet dollars to donuts that if Republicans pick up at least two Iowa Senate seats, Johnson will come back to the fold without hesitation. After spending ten years in the minority caucus, he’s not going to pass up a chance at real legislative power. Most recently, Johnson has served as ranking member of the Senate Human Services Committee.

Meanwhile, Grassley continues to downplay the significance of the latest Trump-induced uproar. Radio Iowa’s O.Kay Henderson reported on the senator’s conference call with Iowa reporters:

“I can only tell you what I would do in a like situation and I wouldn’t say what Trump said,” Grassley said. “On the face of it, I disagree with Trump’s assessment, but I’ve also got to tell you I don’t know the facts of the case and whether there’s some disagreement.”

In response to a reporters’ question, Grassley said ethnicity should not “disqualify” a judge from hearing a case.

“A person’s got to be judged as a person, not on their ethnic background,” Grassley said.

But Grassley suggested this controversy involving Trump and the judge is not an issue of major concern to Iowans.

“I think Iowans, as I can tell from my town meetings, aren’t very concerned about this,” Grassley said. “They’re more concerned about economic security and jobs and getting this economy turned around.”

LATER UPDATE: WHO-TV’s Dave Price interviewed Johnson on June 8. You can watch the video here. Johnson said he has been deluged with calls, both from the media and from his constituents. Johnson said Trump’s comments were the “last straw.” My partial transcript, beginning around the 2:00 mark:

Johnson: I’d been thinking, you know, is there any way for a state senator from Iowa to make a point. I mean, we are a first in the nation caucus, you know. And I love my state. I love Iowa. And I love the Republican Party. My dad ran for governor in 1968, and that was a primary, a three-way primary won by Bob Ray. Dad went on to a good career in Washington, DC. But we were raised, raised to honor the individual and pay respect, regardless of party. It was all about ideas. He was a conservative Republican, but it was all about ideas.

Look what’s happened today. It’s just become so partisan. And now, we have a bigot. I mean, I’ll just call him out on it. He’s a bigot, and he’s leading our party now. He’s gonna shape our party platform.

Describing himself as a “history buff,” Johnson defended his comparison of Trump’s strategy to Adolf Hitler’s rise in Germany, saying it was “valid” because “human nature is universal,” and Hitler had exploited economic misery by giving people a “scapegoat.” He went on to say (beginning around the 3:45 mark),

I also was raised in West Branch, which was settled by Quakers and was along the Underground Railroad. The Republican Party is the party of Lincoln, the party of ending slavery. And yet we’re gonna question the ethnicity of a U.S. citizen who happens to be a federal judge. To call a judge out by name, by someone who aspires to be the president of the United States, is so wrong.

Johnson still believes it’s possible that the Republican National Convention may not nominate Trump, which seems far-fetched to me. He added,

You know what? I wouldn’t mind if the party had a real setback here, I really wouldn’t, and we could rebuild the party. And we could rebuild it in the image of Lincoln, in our real traditions here. But the goal from where we are, which seems to be, for Mr. Trump to be, what he wants to do is make white male America great again. I mean, this is very much a nationalist-driven campaign, and I don’t know why leaders in the Republican Party don’t understand that.

Johnson said he’s been getting calls from all over the country, mostly saying he did the right thing by putting state and country ahead of party. Some callers have criticized his decision, but he’s continuing to answer the phone. Responding to a follow-up question from Price, Johnson said he has not heard from Iowa Republican leaders or the other 23 state senators in the GOP caucus.

LATE UPDATE: Johnson told Pat Rynard on June 15 that he may not caucus with Republicans during the 2017 legislative session.

“There isn’t any guarantee I’d caucus with either party,” he explained. “I would not caucus with the Democrats. I’m not going to change my party registration to Democrat. No way.”

Johnson said he will wait to make a final decision on how to caucus in the Senate after the official Republican nomination. But it certainly seems like he’s played through in his head what not caucusing with the Republicans would be like.

“I’d have to go directly to the Legislative Services Agency and work with them to draft bills and to ask questions about legislation,” Johnson predicted. “I would not have a staff anymore. I would not have staff on my committees. And that’s the other question – where would I fit into the committee structure? Those are questions that we’re just going to have to wait to be answered, and it’s all based on that scenario [of Trump being nominated].” […]

“What would be my position within the caucus?” Johnson asked of if he were to rejoin the Republicans. “I believe that my position, despite anything you might hear from our leadership, has seriously eroded over the last few years. I could talk about the Democrats as well, but I’ll talk about the Republicans because I am a Republican. We have a poor approach to education, to economic development, to energy, and to the environment. And you can double-underline environment. I have become a very vocal advocate for natural resources in this state, which are seriously underfunded.”

He feels like he’s been on the outs with the party over a number of policy splits he’s taken in recent years on Medicaid, the environment and schools.

Johnson has strongly supported full funding for Iowa’s Resource Enhancement and Protection program and for raising the state sales tax by 3/8 of a cent to fill the natural resources trust fund Iowa voters approved in 2010.

During this year’s legislative session, Johnson voted with Democratic colleagues to terminate Medicaid privatization in Iowa and later supported a Democratic bill with strong oversight provisions for Medicaid under managed care.

Governor Terry Branstad criticized Johnson’s decision during his regular weekly press conference of June 20. O.Kay Henderson reported for Radio Iowa,

“I think he’s made a mistake,” Branstad said this morning.

And the governor said state Senator David Johnson of Ocheyedan should “reconsider” his “Never Trump” stand.

“He comes from a very Republican area and I think a lot of people up there think he should support his constituents,” Branstad said.

Trump “has attracted a tremendous amount of people” to the Republican Party, Branstad said, and supporting the party’s nominee “is the way the system works.” Plus, the governor said it’s a sign of “respect” for the will of the people.

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